A couple weeks ago, Jessie, Drake and I were walking through our neighborhood when a gentleman rode by on his bicycle. He acknowledged us with a smile and nod; we returned the gesture in kind. But what was particularly striking about this man is that he was wearing a cannula for oxygen and had a tank strapped to his back.
“Did you see that, mama!?” Jessie asked. “That man needed oxygen but he was riding his bike.”
“That was amazing, Jessie,” I replied, “How incredible that he is getting out and doing what he loves, even with his limitations. That’s so inspiring!”
We continued the conversation about this man, further discussing why he was so inspirational.
Fast forward to this evening…
Jessie and I were in line at a restaurant when she leaned over to me and said, “Mom, that man on the bike is a few people behind us in line.”
I was confused. I had no idea to whom she was referring; I turned around and leaned a bit to try and inconspicuously catch a glimpse. “Awww yes, Jess, the man with oxygen who was riding his bike in Woodbridge. That’s cool!” I affirmed. Meanwhile, I began contemplating just how inspired I was by this man when we saw him on his bike a few weeks ago.
As the line weaved around, he ended up right beside us. I hesitated for a moment and then blurted out, “I think we saw you riding your bike a couple weeks ago in Woodbridge. Am I right?”
He seemed a bit sheepish and tentatively responded, “Well…I do sometimes…yes, that was probably me…I do…”
I enthusiastically interrupted him, “You are so inspiring! We were so moved when we saw you riding your bike.”
He appeared pleasantly surprised. “Well, I guess you don’t see many people with these, huh?” he said as he held up his oxygen tank.
“Well, not on their bike—but we’re actually part of community with kids who need oxygen.”
He had a perplexed look on his face; I realized what I’d said was probably confusing. So, I tried to explain my rather odd statement, “My son actually passed away from a disease and a lot of the other kids with that disease need oxygen.”
I still wasn’t sure I was making sense, but he had tears pooling in his eyes.
“All that to say, seeing you riding your bike while on oxygen was so inspiring to us!’
With that, I turned to order our food.
As Jessie and I were eating our dinner, she compassionately expressed, “I really would love to know why he needs oxygen.”
“Why don’t you ask him, Jessie-Girl? I think he would be happy to share with you.” I stated, hoping that he would indeed be willing to talk with her.
“I don’t know what words to use, mama.”
“Why don’t you simply say, ‘Excuse me sir, do you mind me asking why you need oxygen?’” I advised.
As we finished our meal, I could tell my girl was pondering the idea, wondering whether or not she should ask the question.
I got up from the table to clear our tray, throw away our trash, and get a refill of my drink. When I returned, my girl was standing beside the man, having a conversation. I didn’t want to interrupt, so I watched from afar. They chatted for a bit and then I heard Jessie say, “Thank you!” As she skipped away, I quickly sidled over and said, “Thank you for answering her question.”
“She’s so sweet!” he responded, “And it meant so much to me that she asked.”
“Well, I really appreciate you being so responsive to her. Thank you! I hope you have a great evening,” I stated as I put my arm around Jessie and we walked out the door.
Meanwhile, as we’re walking to the car I inquired, “So, Jess, I’m curious. Why did this man need oxygen?”
“He said he was a firefighter and most of the time the masks work, but sometimes they don’t.”
I stopped dead in my tracks.
“He’s on oxygen because he served as a firefighter?!” I exclaimed. “Jessie, I need to go back inside and thank him for his service.” I hustled back indoors and when I came upon the man he had tears streaming down his face.
I was gripped by his tears. “Sir, my daughter just shared with me that you need oxygen because you were a firefighter. I just wanted to thank you for your public service and the sacrifice you made. I’m so grateful!”
“I was so touched by your daughter,” he voiced as the tears flowed. “People don’t ask me. They just stare. Or treat me awkwardly. Or avoid me. She made me feel human.”
Tears were now pooling in my eyes too.
He continued, “And people make assumptions as to why I’m on oxygen.”
“And here it’s because you sacrificed as a public servant,” I acknowledged.
“Yeah, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I could.” …He paused… And then he resumed, “But now I’ve been getting chastised for riding my bike. I only ride for a few minutes a day yet people tell me I shouldn’t. But I love it. I used to ride a 100 miles.”
I was dumbfounded.
“What is your name, sir?” I asked.
“Tom,” he answered.
“I’m Christina. And I think you’re an inspiration, Tom!”
“Thank you,” he replied, “When you told me my bike-riding inspired you, it made me want to keep riding, even if I get chastised,” he declared, getting more choked up.
“I hope you do, Tom. I really hope you do! And I hope we get more chances to see you riding,” I affirmed. “Thanks again for the sacrifice you made to serve. I know it was so costly.” I put my hand on his shoulder and concluded, “It was a gift chatting with you, Tom. Blessings to you.”
When I got in the car, I started bawling. I had just rubbed shoulders with a true local hero and was moved. I was so touched by his tears and his heart. But I was simultaneously broken by the way he has felt ostracized by society and misunderstood in his fight to live fully within his limitations.
How easily we get uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. How quick we can be to judge. How often we make assumptions based on incomplete information. Sometimes a person’s struggle is visible. Sometimes it’s not. But no one wants to be defined by their struggle, we long to be truly seen and understood, for all that we are. And sometimes it only takes a moment to get a fuller, more beautiful picture of a person.
As we were driving away, Jessie said, “I’m glad I asked him about his oxygen. He was the highlight of my day.”
“For me too, Jessie-Girl, for me too.”